by Linda Cahill
Enjoy this never before published New Year’s Eve mystery short story.
Sean Clark slammed his hand on the desk and raced out of his office cubicle. “Shut that damn thing off.”
The man with the vacuum froze. “Yes, yes.”
Sean tapped his watch. “You’re not supposed to start until six!”
The vacuum continued to whine.
“Thanks.” Sean gave the man a tight smile. It wasn’t the cleaner’s fault Sean was working late on New Year’s Eve.
His friend Adam and their other pals disappeared hours ago.
“Come on Sean, two for one shots in the bar on Hastings.”
Sean waved him off. “Catch you later. Got to do this last-minute letter.”
“Waste of time, Sean. If there are layoffs in January, we’ll all be gone.”
As the cleaner rounded the corner to the elevator bank, Sean went back to his desk. Adam thought Sean was sucking up. He was right.
Their department head in the Commission of Financial Institutions, Dennis Putter, had asked for help. Sean needed this job if he was ever going to buy his own place. So he stepped forward.
“Sean, thanks for volunteering. The Commissioner wants this letter on our website tonight.”
The Commissioner wanted to shine in his look-ahead to the media for the New Year. Too bad he waited until the last minute.
Sean settled into the massive chair that almost filled his orange-walled cubicle. He had sneaked it out of the storeroom under the very nose of Marielle Lee, the boss’s dragon assistant.
“What are you doing in the storeroom, Sean?”
“I was out of pens.”
Marielle held the door open with slender fingers, their red-tipped nails shining brightly on the dull wood. She eyed him suspiciously. “I’m locking this place up now.”
“Thanks.” Marielle was their relentless czarina of supplies. But she was also a whiz at corporate budgets.
When Sean ruled the world, he would have a prettier assistant, his girlfriend Jessica from records.
Maybe he would keep Marielle, too. She would do the boring budgeting, manage his paper work. He and Jessica could make good use of the soft white couch in the boss’s office…
But not today. Jessica was with her parents for the holiday.
Sean listened for Putter’s return. The boss was having dinner with his political pals. The only sounds now were the tapping of computer keys from some other branch far down the cavernous corridors, the pneumatic whoosh of the ventilation system, and the occasional ding of the elevators.
Putter would be back. Meanwhile Sean must find creative ways to help the Commissioner brag about ‘rightsizing’ their agency and shrinking its budget.
Things were better before the new government came in. He missed Jason White, his former boss. White had fought for his staff. He got them increases and didn’t encourage overtime. No more.
Sean went to the kitchen and grabbed a soda from the vending machine. He should finish the chief’s puff piece and escape for some fun. But instead of going back to his workspace, he stopped in front of Putter’s office door with the red and gold Happy Holidays and Best of the New Year sign.
This had been Jason White’s office. White had bought that shiny, tinselly poster to liven up the bland surroundings. But when the government changed, the new Commissioner fired White to open a job for his friend Putter, the party fundraiser. The only things Putter kept were White’s assistant, Marielle, and this sign.
Sean took a swig of his soda and hurried back to his cubicle. Better finish the job before he was fired, too. A sudden roar and whine shattered the stillness. That vacuum again! Then the sharp tones of Gloria the cleaning supervisor and a small crash. Sean stomped out of his tiny workspace. “What’s going on?”
A cleaning cart had been shoved through the Boss’s door and rammed into his desk. And Gloria was grappling with the vacuum man.
Sean raced forward and seized him.
“Mr. Sean, no, no! Is okay!” Gloria hissed at the cleaner who stared reproachfully up at Sean.
“He say is ghost here. He no want to clean.”
Sean let go. “A ghost?”
Gloria hissed again and the little man scuttled away, shoulders sagging with relief. She took a rag and swiped it over the boss’s desk. “I clean today.”
“You’re sure everything is alright?”
Gloria tapped her head. “No ghost here.” She whipped around Putter’s sanctum. “Everything is fine.”
“Okay then.” Sean went back to his desk. A ghost? Crazy for sure. Soon he heard Gloria’s cart rattle off to the elevators.
The next time Sean looked up the December daylight had been replaced by full dark. He got up for a break and wandered over to the office’s huge windows facing the street.
Ghosts. Associated with violent deaths. In a government office? Ridiculous.
He stared into the darkness. His reflection stared back, faintly, as if he weren’t really there.
Below him, the city lights brightened the downtown core. In here, the lights were on a motion sensor to save energy. They had an annoying habit of turning off at the worst times—like when he was at the printer. Maybe it was a bit spooky.
Sean gave himself a mental head slap and went back to work. He poured a few more syrupy words into the Chief’s letter. God, he missed Jessica. He should send this sucker to print and bail. Just then, the electric doors clanged open down the hall.
Maybe Adam was coming back to persuade him to go out for drinks. Eagerly, Sean got up to check the elevators.
There was no one there.
Then he heard a keyboard begin clacking far away at the other end of the floor. Somewhere down the hall someone else was working. The thought made him feel less alone.
The heck with it. He would revise the letter one more time, and leave it under Putter’s door. He turned back toward his cubicle. Gloria had left Putter’s office door wide open.
Sean hesitated for a second then stepped in. Settling his long frame into Putter’s chair, he entered the password the boss had helpfully scribbled on his blotter. The screen opened to a ‘dating’ site. Wow. He closed the site and scanned for emails about layoffs.
Health and Safety meetings, Soccer Tournament, Parking Passes…the elevator dinged in the distance and this time he heard Putter’s heavy tread. Oh shit.
Sean had just enough time to log out and pretend to be admiring the view when Putter strode in to his office. “Sean?”
Sean looked around as if surprised. “Oh, Dennis, hi!”
Putter advanced suspiciously on his desk. He peered at the computer, but it was dark and nothing else seemed out of place. “What are you doing here, Sean?”
“Oh, ah, I heard a huge crash, bunch of ambulances, and I thought this would be a better spot to see if traffic was backed up.”
Putter marched to the window. “Humph. Nothing much worse than the usual slowdowns.” He narrowed his eyes. “Why are you still in the office?”
Sean gave him a puzzled look. “The Chief’s letter due tomorrow? I was waiting for some quiet.”
“Seems quiet to me.”
Sean shrugged. “Now it is. Before you arrived the cleaners were fighting outside your door. One of them refused to come in.”
Putter smiled. “Because of the ghost in my office.”
The boss’s smile grew chilly. “You know what happened to Jason White?” Sean remembered security guards escorting the former boss out of this very office. White didn’t get far. Near the elevators, he staggered and fell. Someone ran for the defibrillator, but it was too late.
“I remember, yes.”
Putter arranged his face into a sympathetic droop. “Heart attack, I heard. But he didn’t die in my office.”
No, you dick. It was in the corridor outside.
“Anyway, my assistant Marielle’s contract is up. I put the word out to a few candidates that I’m posting her position.”
The guardian of office furniture was getting the hook? “When is she leaving?”
“Soon. I came back to start the paper work. I’m making it a permanent position.” Putter frowned. “No one’s come forward.”
Putter gestured at his computer. “It doesn’t matter. I have a candidate in mind.” Sean’s stomach did a flip as Putter booted up his desk top. But the boss noticed nothing.
“Good. Well, I’ll have that letter ready for you soon.”
He hurried back to his desk. Marielle was being booted out. He felt a twinge of sympathy. Too bad for her. But this could be a great opportunity for Jessica. He called her parents.
“Sean?” Jessica’s dad answered the phone. Jessica wasn’t there. She wasn’t even expected. Sean put a smile into his voice. “Mr. Ross, how are you? Sorry, I must have pressed your number by mistake. She’ll call you tomorrow.”
Sean hung up. Where was Jessica? She said she was going home to visit. She had a bag with her when she kissed him goodbye. Had something happened to her? He texted her cell: Miss you already, how is it going? No reply. He called her. She didn’t pick up. He began to feel sick. Had she been in an accident? He pictured her lying in the road, hit by a car, EMS vehicles all around. Ridiculous. There was nothing wrong. She said she would call later in the evening. She would call and explain.
He took a breath and quieted his panic. He would finish this stupid letter, call Jessica again, and go look for her among their friends.
He put in his ear buds hoping the spare sound of Minecraft would soothe him. There was a loud thump. Even through the earbuds, he heard it.
Putter must be moving furniture around. Or the cleaners were back again. Helped by the elegant music, he ignored it all to give the letter a final tune-up. Done. He pressed Save, Send, and Print.
The lights timed out leaving him in darkness. Damn energy-saving. He stepped carefully into the gloomy corridor, waving his arms around to trigger the sensors. The lights blazed back just in time to keep him from tripping over Putter’s outstretched arm.
Light reflected off the boss’s gold Rolex. The rest of him slumped awkwardly on the floor beside his snowy white couch.
“Dennis! My God what happened?” Sean raced in to kneel by Putter’s side and put his ear to the boss’s chest. Putter was breathing strongly. Whew. From the corner of his eye, Sean saw an elegant, high-heeled boot. Two of them. He looked up from the boots to their owner, Putter’s soon to be discarded assistant. “Marielle!”
Marielle toed the boss’s shoulder. “He’s fine, Sean. Go back to your executive chair.”
“What? What chair? What’s wrong with Putter?”
The dragon smiled ,but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I knew you took the chair, Sean.”
Sean stared up at her. “Marielle! Who gives a goddam about a chair?”
The assistant continued speaking as if their boss wasn’t lying helpless on the floor. “I knew you took it from the storeroom. Just like I knew Dennis was planning to replace me with a newer model.”
Sean blinked nervously and touched Putter’s pallid cheek. “Did you call 911?”
Marielle shook her head. “He’s fine.”
Putter hiccuped, wafting noxious scotch breath in Sean’s face.
Marielle stepped over Putter. She had a bottle of the boss’s Scotch in one hand and his golf tournament coffee cup in the other.
“Not for long. He prefers to play ‘interview’ with the younger female staff.”
As Sean watched, she tipped the amber liquid into Putter’s cup. “And he started that rumor about ghosts in his office.”
Marielle looked at him as if he were stupid. “To make sure the cleaners don’t interrupt, Sean.”
He was about to insist they pick up the boss when he heard the elevator doors open and footsteps coming their way.
Sean moved forward. “Jessica!” She had her suitcase.
“Sean, why are you still here?”
He hesitated. “You’re not in Ithaca.”
“I have a late interview for a permanent job! With more money.”
Sean felt the tension ease from his shoulders. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s with Dennis Putter, your boss. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
Jessica moved around him. “Sean! What happened to Mr. Putter?” Her eyes widened as she took in Marielle. Putter’s assistant was calmly pouring Scotch from his coffee cup into his gaping mouth. “Marielle!”
Marielle capped the bottle and placed it in Putter’s desk. “Ah, Jessica. I’m afraid the job isn’t available yet.”
“But I’ve been practicing my typing at the other end of the floor.”
Marielle wiped the coffee cup and returned it to the boss’s book shelf. “Not happening.” Jessica leaned down to feel for Putter’s pulse. “Marielle, we can’t just leave him here.”
Marielle’s eyes glittered. “He’ll be fine. I put something into his drink.”
Sean stared at the boss’s dragon. “He wanted you out, so he could have Jessica.”
Marielle buttoned her coat. “Yes, of course. But I only have a few years left until I can leave with a pension. So I interfered.”
Light dawned in Sean’s eyes. “You’ve done this before.”
Marielle smiled. “Every time he has a late ‘interview’ I make sure he’s drunk. Oh, and Sean, I wouldn’t bother trying to tell him what happened. He won’t remember anything. Which is just as well for you.”
Sean stepped back. “What do you mean?”
“Mine isn’t the only job he was playing with. He was planning to fire you and your friends to hire some of his son’s golf buddies.”
Marielle turned with her hand on the door.
“Thanks to me, you two will have a much Happier New Year.”
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